The final days of the 2012 Edinburgh International Festival were marked by exuberant Boycott Israel demonstrations outside the Playhouse theatre and drama within, as world-renowned dance company Batsheva wrestled with the consequences of being promoted by the Israeli state as its cultural ambassador.
Batsheva’s three performances of ‘Hora’, an hour-long work by artistic director Ohad Naharin, on Aug 30-Sept 1, were disturbed by frequent interjections from protestors calling out “Free Palestine” or “Boycott Israeli Apartheid.”
A mobilisation by a coalition of groups under the umbrella “Don’t Dance with Israeli Apartheid” generated vociferous debate in the Scottish media in the preceding weeks and won support from leading cultural figures. See a full report
on the Boycott Israel Network website.
In one of the video clips
recorded during the protests, Naharin – who has been attacked by the Israeli Right for his radical views – can be seen listening gravely and nodding as leading activists explain how significant it would be if Batsheva were to publicly dissociate itself from Brand Israel – a PR project which misuses culture to deflect attention away from the Occupation and other injustices against the Palestinian people.
Beside him, the company’s general manager Dina Aldor is emphatically shaking her head.
Ohad Naharin (left) and Dina Aldor outside Edinburgh’s Playhouse on September 1, 2012. Photo: Jon Pullman
The moment highlights the dilemma of artists attempting to engage as people of conscience with injustice in their own societies while being required to act as flag bearers for the entity perpetrating the injustices. This must have been a familiar dilemma for culture professionals during the apartheid era in South Africa.
In Edinburgh Naharin sought out boycott activists and told them that his company was not part of Brand Israel; that Batsheva’s funding had no political strings attached.
He said calling for boycott of an artistic organisation could be legitimate, but “should only take place when the art organization itself collaborates in promoting the situation that is being protested against.”
Within the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign
initiated by Palestinian civil society, the rationale for targeting elite Israeli cultural institutions is that they are – whether they like it or not – inextricably bound up with Brand Israel, begun by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2005.
Scottish Jews for a Just Peace, one of the Edinburgh campaign coalition partners, explained the branding idea rather well , quoting Arye Mekel, the ministry’s deputy director general for cultural affairs: “We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theater companies, exhibits. This way you show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.”
Hence the appearance at the Edinburgh Playhouse of both the Israeli ambassador to the UK, Daniel Taub, and culture minister Limor Livnat who declared: “Batsheva Dance Company is one of our flagship cultural institutions”.
Friends of Batsheva organisations in the US and Australia invite donations specifically to ‘contribute towards a positive image of Israel globally’ and ‘to support the company in its position as Cultural Ambassadors of Israel on the world stage.’
Batsheva is just one of the institutions enmeshed in the Brand Israel system. Treating any of them as normal merely reassures Israelis and their government that no change is needed.
Israel’s apologists, while attacking boycott campaigners for sullying the purity of art with the grime of political action, attempt to explain away Brand Israel by portraying it as no more sinister than British Council garden parties in foreign lands – just a bit of innocent bridge-building.
Zionist frontmen/women, such as actress Maureen Lipman, are wheeled out to express astonishment that anyone could wish to limit the freedom of expression of artists out of sheer bigotry, just because they are from Israel. The unsubtle subtext here is that all boycott campaigners are antisemites – even the Jewish ones.
Let’s set aside the fact that Zionists vigorously pursued their own cultural boycott campaign against Soviet targets in the 1980s, disrupting ballet and orchestral performances in pursuit of their political goal of bringing dissident Soviet Jews to Israel.
The freedom of expression people like Lipman claim to uphold is a distant dream for Palestinians.
Palestinian artists face daily humiliation, racist discrimination, checkpoints, strip-searches, legal impediments to what they may or may not address in their work, and direct attacks on cultural facilities and events.
The notion of Israeli art building bridges is to most of them laughable, an insult. This emerged clearly during the visit to London in May 2012 of the Palestinian theatre group ASHTAR and again in recent discussion about Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ decision to breach the boycott.
Most leading Israeli artists confronted with a clash between culture and conscience (to quote the strapline for the Scottish Sunday Herald’s four-page review of the Batsheva drama) have responded by willingly embracing their cultural ambassador role, like the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, or by pathetically claiming, like theatre director Ilan Ronen, that they have no choice but to perform in the illegal settlements if they want to collect their government subsidy.
Batsheva’s Ohan Naharin differs from them in that he is on record as criticising successive Israeli governments for allowing the commission of crimes against the Palestinian people. In 2005 he was presented in a Canadian newspaper La Presse as “a pro-Palestinian who strongly opposes the Israeli occupation.”
Reports at the time cited sources in the Foreign Ministry attacking Naharin, saying his statements “seriously harm the image of Israel, especially in view of his being an Israel Prize laureate”. Naharin was quoted as saying his prize was an award from the citizens of Israel, not from the stewards of the state.
But this did not prevent Livnat in Edinburgh, representing the most right-wing government Israel has ever had, proudly embracing Naharin’s company Batsheva as a standard bearer for the Israeli state.
In correspondence with campaigners Naharin said Israel was very divided. He drew a distinction between the people who abuse power and people who are giving hope, saying “We are the Israelis who belong to growing number of people who can make the difference and bring a change. … I don’t think you are helping the Palestinian cause. You are maybe helping yourself to feel better about the situation… while hurting us.”
These arguments are similar to those deployed by Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, when defending its invitation to the Israeli national theatre Habima back in May. Some members of Habima were reported to have signed a pledge not to perform in the illegal settlement town of Ariel. So Dromgoole argued that the company should not be targeted, even though it had staged performances in Ariel’s Hall of Culture.
Many leading British theatre professionals disagreed and supported a boycott call, making the issue a high-profile talking point in the serious media. PACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, has reiterated many times that BDS action targets only institutions identified with the state. It is not a vehicle for witchunting individuals. Unfortunately for Batsheva, the flipside of this is that an institution cannot escape being judged complicit by virtue of the views of individuals within it, however influential they may be.
Dance scholar and author Dr Nicholas Rowe, who has extensive experience of working with dance in the occupied Palestinian territories, said that Israeli artists have to make stark choices if they are not to play the part of ‘political puppets.’
According to guidelines from PACBI
, negatively distancing itself from Brand Israel is not enough to exempt an Israeli cultural institution from being targeted. It must end its complicity in Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights and international law. This would mean, at the very least, explicitly renouncing any cultural ambassador role and any funding from bodies that promote Brand Israel.
Cultural boycott is becoming increasingly effective in one of its main aims – to generate a high level of public discussion and awareness of the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality.
According to Boycott Israel Network co-convenor Hilary Smith: “The tough choice for artists who are sincere in their commitment to justice and self determination for the Palestinians is to refuse to tour, to join Boycott from Within (an Israeli group supporting boycott, divestment and sanctions) and to work for real change.”
Achieving change is the desirable goal which will determine decisions to be made about tactics during the forthcoming Batsheva UK tour. Hopefully it will also influence decisions being made in the company’s boardroom in Tel Aviv.